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June 29, 2009

Does war promote the dignity of Afghan women?

Javed Akbar

Javed AkbarThe world usually hears very little about the labours of the legislature that sits uneasily in Kabul.

However, when representatives of a tradition-bound minority within Afghanistan l

obbied for, and got, their narrow, domestic traditions put into rigid legislation, there

was a global media explosion.

The resulting international outcry forced President Hamid Karzai to abrogate the

proposed law that, the UN said, would have legalized rape within marriage, and

prohibited wives from stepping outside their homes without their husband’s


The law was no surprise.

For women in Afghanistan, their rights have always been bargaining chips to be

given or taken away for political gain. By hiring the warlords of the Northern

Alliance to defeat the Taliban, George W. Bush’s own military strategy knowingly

sacrificed women’s rights for political gain. His rhetoric in 2001, "the fight

against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," was no

match for the raw need to woo fierce sectarian local leaders to support the

shaky central government.

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. One of its goals, according to

official statements, was to free women from the tyranny of Afghan hardliners. To

that end, the Soviets instituted some reformist laws during their brutal decade-

long occupation that included granting city-dwelling women greater access to

employment and education. They even tried to give women equal rights in the

inheritance of family property.

When the Taliban emerged in the mid-’90s, part of their mission was to "save"

Afghan women from the violence of the warlords, who had driven out the Soviet

troops. Indeed, Taliban fighters were far more disciplined and predictable than

the ragged untrained forces that did the bidding of the warlords. But if the

Taliban were disciplined, they were also extremist. They "fulfilled" their

promise by harshly enforcing many of the same ancient anti-woman edicts the

Soviet invaders had tried to eliminate.

Enter Bush in October 2001, fresh from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist

attacks and ready to wage a "war on terror." Although the primary announced aim

of the U.S.’s invasion of Afghanistan was to deny an operational base to al

Qa‘ida, public support was generated by promoting other goals, including that of

rescuing Afghan women from the "medieval-minded" Taliban.

This pattern continues to the present, with the Obama administration making many

of the same claims. At the March 2009 International Conference on Afghanistan,

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that women’s rights are "a

central part of American foreign policy."

At every step along the way, Afghan women have suffered. They have suffered in

the first place from war itself. Women may not be regular fixtures on the front

line, but inevitably they form the bulk of the victims of any conflict.

Karzai is simply continuing to implement a policy set down for him by

Washington: appease misogynist and obscurantist forces to obtain "stability."

For the women of Afghanistan, very little has changed since the Taliban fell. No

real progress, development or sound governance can take place when half of a

society is marginalized and mistreated. Equality between the genders is not only

a requirement of justice; it is also a sound strategy for a brighter future for

any nation, rich or poor. But how can such a precious social value take root and


The struggle of Afghan women is reduced in the West to simplistic discussions

about externals like the burqa. Don the burqa and you are oppressed; take it off

and, lo and behold, you are free.

It is extraordinary how often, and how easily, the difficult issues of women’s

empowerment are reduced to this kind of symbolism. It allows policymakers and

the media to sidestep deeper, more delicate, questions about women’s rights. In-

between choices that combine the true spirit of a community’s religion without

turning the dignity of women into a polarized, culturally imperialistic East-

West power struggle are rarely considered.

Westerners presume that a veiled woman cannot possibly be empowered; that

subjugation and the way a woman dresses go together; that a woman cannot

possibly choose to cover herself of her own will; that given a choice, all women

would like to wear short skirts, trousers and halter tops. Thus, in our western

mindset, "empowerment" can be reduced to a brand of make-up or a line of

clothing. Change in externals is demanded or even imposed, while there is little

understanding of subtler developments that emerge on a far wider canvas.

By what norms should we judge the lives of women living in a different culture?

Are progress and Westernization necessarily the same? Have not some of the most

conservative and intolerant trends come from the West, based on hatred and

exclusion of people because of colour, race and religion? Is there not a

profound contradiction between the willingness to invade far-off countries with

military and technological force, and the atmosphere of freedom and mutually

respectful dialogue within which genuine cultural progress can thrive?

Did the U.S. rush to war really help the women of Afghanistan?

* Javed Akbar is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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